"I judge a chef based on their roast chicken."
"The best way to judge a sushi chef is to order one piece of tamago, or omelet sushi."
I don't know who said those things, but I understand the idea. Skilled preparation of the seemingly simplest dishes is one of the marks of a great chef. Carbonara might be the roast chicken of Italian cuisine. It is a dish comprised of no more than 5 or 6 ingredients and even the unskilled cook can make a decent version of the dish. But good ingredients and good cooking, as with roast chicken, can elevate carbonara to something spectacular.
Carbonara is simple, on paper, and apparently there is an argument about virtually every aspect of the preparation. Spaghetti? Bucatini? Egg yolks only or whole eggs? Onions or no onions? Guanciale or pancetta? Parmegiano or Pecorino? Good lord...
I've had spaghetti alla carbonara three times in the past week, and that's equal to the number of times I've had it in the past decade. So why now, with the carbonara? A good pal invited me to his out-of-town house for Memorial day weekend and he knows that I have a line on the good meats so he asked me to bring some guanciale, or cured pig's jowl. He had been working on his carbonara and wanted to make it for me during the weekend. Nice. I brought a bunch of wine for the weekend and tried to include things that would pair with carbonara.
In general, my pal makes his carbonara like this:
-Salted water, bring to a boil.
-Slice guanciale, fry in a pan to render the fat.
-Pour off some of the fat, add a good glug of white wine and cook down.
-Crack two very fresh eggs, beat.
-Add a generous amount of grated Parmegiano and chopped fresh parsley, beat some more.
-Take the cooked spaghetti out of the boiling water, allowing some of the pasta water to come along, and add it to the egg mixture, tossing all the while.
-Toss, toss, toss some more so the egg doesn't cook, but instead forms a sort of glaze on the pasta.
-Add the cooked guanciale and some salt and cracked black pepper to taste.
Later in the weekend my friend made another carbonara and this one was perfect, to my taste. He rinsed off some of the curing seasonings before cooking the guanciale and added no black pepper or salt.
So, when Peter and a few others came over for dinner earlier this week I knew that carbonara would be one of the things I would make. And I wanted to try another kind of wine. But what? I decided to ask friends for advice, friends who know something about Italian food and wine. Jeremy Parzen said that a slightly chilled Cesanese del Piglio, a peppery red wine, would be ideal. "It has just enough meatiness to complement the egg and lardons and its natural spice is great with the heat of the dish," he said. Jeremy also said that if I wanted to drink white wine he would recommend a Frascati, a Lazio Bianco, or an Orvieto. "Acidity obviously is a must but the wine needs some spiciness to go with the freshly cracked pepper of the carbonara," he said.
I asked Alfonso Cevola what he thinks is the perfect pairing for carbonara. "Something white and simple," he said. "Maybe a good Frascati or a Verdicchio like Bucci or La Monacesca. Coenobium is a bit out there but I'd try that for an exotic choice. From Abruzzo La Valentina makes a nice Trebbiano (not to be confused with the more expensive Valentini). Something interesting from Apulia is the Masseria Li Veli Askos Verdeca." Some similarities with Jeremy's recommendations, and although most of the wines these guys are recommending are unknown to this Italian wine ignoramus, I began to understand what they were getting at. "Essentially one needs something light with good acidity to cut through the fat of the dish, not too sweet but not lacking in fruit either, and not too dry," Alfonso said. Okay, makes sense.
The problem is, I own literally two bottles of Italian white wine and they are both from Friuli and made mostly of Friulano, and they are richer, more herbal wines. Not what those guys described. So I thought about my cellar. What do I have that is simple, fruity, and with good acidity, but not too much of either? Something dry, but not too dry. Something that would stand up to pungent guanciale and also be easy drinking.
Friends, I'm here to tell you that I served a Provence rosé with my first ever attempt at Carbonara. The incredibly reasonably priced and very delicious 2012 Domaine les Fouques Côtes de Provence Cuvée de l'Aubigue. And it was a very good pairing. WAY better than the Prager Riesling, which is a far better wine, objectively speaking. A better pairing also than the Stony Hill.
We ate our pasta and my friends were happy. While we ate I asked Peter, who knows a lot about all wine and food, what he thinks is the best wine to pair with carbonara. Now this is a guy who at home drinks almost exclusively white wine - Champagne and Sherry. "Carbonara is a good red wine pasta dish," he said. He has a friend out west who loves carbonara and who loves to open old Nebbiolo to pair with it. "Now that's good," Peter smiled.
Clearly, more research is needed. And by the way, does anyone know a good Brooklyn cardiologist?